The world around us is a never-ending source of inspiration for stories. The physical environment shapes our culture. Our culture shapes our values. Our values shape our desires, goals, and dreams. All of the above shape our stories.
Today’s Savvy Saturday post highlights three unique values and practices found outside the United States of America, from the point of view of a novelist.
1. Gemutlichkeit (German) or hygge (Danish): a concept that ties being in a warm or cozy place with being in a mental state of well-being, good cheer, belonging, and relaxation.
This concept, though English doesn’t have the word for it, is at the core of many of our Christmas season songs. The weather may be dreadful, and the night outside may be dark and bitter, but inside, we can celebrate having the comfort of home and good friends and family, a bright fire, good music, a hot beverage, and a warm heart and spirit.
This concept could be put to good use in a fantasy context. One could imagine a society that seems cold and hard as the ice and snow that cover the ground all year. Going outside is an ordeal to be faced with determination, and thus work, travel, and any contact with outsiders is conducted grimly and efficiently. Ambassadors from this land, when far from home, would maintain their rigidity and cool demeanor as they have been taught. They might be seen as brusque, hard, and even ruthless to people from other lands. But at home – ah, at home, these people transform into different versions of themselves – people whose hearts are merry and whose countenances are bright. Ruddy good cheer and laughter emerge as the icy external face of society melts away, and all who gather around the table throw off the cares of the world outside and embrace the joy of togetherness. What kinds of stories could be told about clashes of cultures? Of travelers from other lands who think these people to be heartless, having never experienced the heart of their society. Of the travelers from this society who discover that people in other lands face less severe threats, but their joys are less felt as well. Stories of love and discovery; stories of war and misunderstanding; stories of snow and fire and separation and redemption. What story would the concept of gemutlichkeit inspire for you?
2. La Tomatina, a tomato-throwing festival in Valencia, Spain.
Twenty thousand people come to this town every year to throw tomatoes at each other for an hour, just for the sport of it. The festival traces its origins back to 1945, when some boys got in a scuffle with a parade participant, who began throwing tomatoes at them. It turned into a town-wide event over the years, and the government eventually gave the festival its seal of approval. It is now a major tourist attraction – plus, the acidity from the tomatoes cleans the town’s cobblestone streets, leaving them in pristine condition after the tomato pulp is washed away.
This example goes to show that nearly anything can be turned into a believable festival – especially if you have rich tourists in neighboring cities who you can convince to come and take part, and part with their money at the same time. Remember, this is the same country that features the Running of the Bulls, where people literally let themselves be chased by stampeding large animals with horns, just to show that they’re fast enough not to die. What strange festivals and celebrations might your fantasy world celebrate? How did they get started? What is the attraction of this festival for participants and outsiders? What “normal” societal rules are suspended for the duration of the festival? How often do people die? Is there a prize for the winner? Details like this can make your world come to life and stick with readers long after they’ve finished reading your book.
3. Shinrin-yoku: a Japanese health concept involving taking short trips to a forest and breathing in the aromatic air there for health benefits.
The health benefits of spending time in nature have been discussed and expounded upon by scholars in various cultures. What if, however, the stakes for spending time in nature, or in a particular forest, were much higher? One could easily imagine that a druid or other sorcerer could hold an entire people in thrall by infecting them with a magical disease that could only be kept at bay through regular visits to a forest, where the trees and other plants would emit an air-borne counter to the disease’s effects. Alternatively, this curse might have been the guarantor of a standard loyalty pledge given by peasants in ancient times, that they would not leave the land of the nobleman whom they served. After hundreds of years, however, society may have progressed and history been forgotten, leaving only the knowledge that periodic trips to the forest are vital for maintaining one’s health.
Based on this cultural belief, two (or more) different kinds of stories could unfold. First, a traveler might come to town, get infected, and need to identify the cause of the curse and how to break it, even as the locals insist that the forest is good and life-saving rather than being the source of their illness. Alternatively, a daring girl might decide to leave the village and see the world, but take some potted plants from the forest with her to keep her in good health. This might work for a while, as the plants emit a certain amount of the required chemicals, but it is not enough. Over time, the girl begins to sicken, and she must find a way to break the curse – or find another forest to cure her – before she dies. Of course, these are just two examples; how might you incorporate this cultural idea into a plot?
As authors, we should be grateful for and inspired by the rich cultural diversity of the world around us. Fantasy authors shouldn’t settle for creating forgettable societies; we should strive to incorporate things into our worlds’ physical landscapes (e.g. forests) and cultural landscapes (e.g. festivals and social practices) that will deeply impact the values and desires of our characters, and thus drive our plots to stick in readers’ minds and keep them turning pages and coming back for more.
What books have you read that have done this well? What other cultural practices or values might inspire a thoughtful fantasy setting?